Don t Confuse Academic Success with Professional Potential

Don't Confuse Academic Success with Professional Potential

Enough about avocations. True talents, on the other hand, are those areas where you know that you are among the best in the area in which you are competing. Many people confuse true talent with academic talent. Performance in specific academic areas—while relevant—does not tell the whole story. A top chef told me that he was so bad in almost every subject that his teachers and guidance counselors had him convinced he had no talents. They didn't teach cooking, and now he is the celebrity cooking guru in his large Western town.

Many people have resigned themselves to failure in life because they did not excel academically. Let me tell you something from personal experience. I went to Harvard Law School, and I wouldn't let at least half of the people I met there get anywhere near my legal work. As Stephen Lambright of Anheuser-Busch put it, "some people are very, very smart intellectually, but they cannot walk across the street without being hit by a car." There are so many skills that are not taught in our schools—the creativity and common sense that lead to invention; the momentum-building skills that make an effective manager; the perspective that molds a corporate leader; the ability to assess risk that causes a business owner to succeed. You may have all those skills bubbling under a C-minus average. Do not use your experiences in school as the sole or even principal measure of your potential. Yes, you have to be smart to be invincible. No, you do not have to have an A-plus average in school.

Apply Talents with the Broadest Brush Possible

When you have figured out what your talents are, develop them aggressively—but again, with soft focus—meaning that you apply the talent with as broad a brush as possible. So, for example, if you are an exceptional writer, don't focus all of your energy and effort on becoming an award-winning screenwriter. Writing movies is as tough a field as there can be, so try your hand at other facets of that same talent—books, news reporting, speechwriting, even Web design (which, contrary to appearances, does require writing skill if the site is to be successful). There are so many fields where top writing skills are needed. Keep all your options open and active.

By not focusing on specific goals, while simultaneously determining and developing your greatest talents, you have positioned yourself to take advantage of the real wild card of professional invincibility: opportunity. The next two sections, on flexibility and fortuity respectively, deal with the two facets of a critical skill—the capacity to recognize, maximize, and capitalize on opportunity. The soft focus and skills development that we have covered already lay the groundwork for maximizing these opportunities.

Rule 3: Maintain Pervasive Professional Flexibility


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Is flexibility an essential element of professional success?

Yes: 96 percent

No: 4 percent

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According to former Senator Alan Simpson, flexibility is essential to a successful career because unpredictability is the way of the universe. "These guys who wake up with their days all planned out on a Palm Pilot and a computer notebook, well God bless 'em," says Simpson. "I am here to say to them that I have never found a single day in my life that worked out the way that I planned it. Not a single day."

Stephen Hawking—among other leading popular physicists—writes book after book telling us how the universe, while seemingly rigid, is actually quite flexible. Space bends time; matter can be condensed and expanded. For many of us, it all seems interesting but very far away. Not for the invincible executive. The fact is we can apply those seemingly distant principles to improving our professional lives.

Most invincible executives have a very broad perspective on the world around them. They develop not only the cultural interests that we discussed earlier, but also historic and scientific interests. "We learn through anomalies," notes leading medical researcher Dr. Joshua Korzenik. The most successful people, according to Dr. Korzenik, are those who expose themselves to a wide variety of scientific and cultural ideas, and whose minds are always working to reconcile the anomalies that they see in those diverse concepts. This scientific sense of curiosity prevents "stasis"—the cessation of learning, says Korzenik. Indeed, most top professionals are intrigued by space, time, and matter and have learned to use these elements of the universe to their professional advantage. It seems they have all read Hawking's A Brief History of Time.

Invincible executives are, therefore, as flexible as the universe itself. Since the universe is composed of a flexible continuum of space, time, and matter, it should be no surprise that top professionals show a profound understanding and flexibility in terms of all three of these qualities. "Your goal is not to find the job that you need, but rather the one that needs you," according to aerospace executive Tom Gunn. And that process—locating your future—requires both a strong perspective on what is going on around you and a great deal of flexibility, according to Gunn. Let's talk about the specific areas where you need to be flexible so that you find the right path to success.